San Antonio Spurs Rookie Update: Did The Spurs Find Multiple Steals?

Since they were toiling in mediocrity, the San Antonio Spurs decided to fully rebuild this off-season by trading All-Star Dejounte Murray. Armed with three first-rounders in the 2022 NBA Draft, the Spurs selected a plethora of young talent to pair with Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell, Jakob Poeltl, and Tre Jones. While top 2023 draft prospects Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson are the names associated with the Spurs these days, their current rookies deserve more recognition. Jeremy Sochan (9th), Malaki Branham (20th), and Blake Wesley (25th) represent key building blocks that San Antonio will use to eventually launch themselves back into contention. 

I won’t cover Wesley because he has only played two games due to injury (where he looked fantastic), but Sochan and Branham both have a decent sample size. 

Jeremy Sochan | 6’8″ | F 

San Antonio drafted Sochan with the 9th overall pick. He was 14th on my final Big Board, and I thought it was a reach at the time with names like AJ Griffin, Jalen Duren, and Ousmane Dieng available. While I would still draft those three above Sochan, the move has worked out for the Spurs due to his hounding defense, budding playmaking, and solid finishing. 

Firstly, the immediate impact should be noted. The Spurs own the 4th worst record at 11-22, which places them firmly in the Wembanyama sweepstakes. However, in 165 minutes, their starting five of Jones, Vassell, Johnson, Sochan, and Poeltl has a 110.1 Offensive Rating and 109 Defensive Rating. That’s a net rating of 1.1, which would currently rank 14th among teams. When Jones, Johnson, Sochan, and Poeltl are on the court with any player as the fifth (265 minutes), San Antonio has a 4.2 Net Rating – the same as Memphis, who sits at 5th in this department. For an allegedly terrible team devoid of talent, a positive net rating in a large amount of minutes is encouraging. I’m not saying Sochan is the main reason, but he’s certainly a contributor to these results. 

At 8.3 PPG, 4.6 RPG, and 2.4 APG, Sochan does a little of everything. He possesses great playmaking instincts, which is becoming essential for modern forwards. In the clip below, Sochan collects the pass and drives to the basket. Moritz Wagner anticipates a floater and sets up to take a charge; however, Sochan immediately recognizes this and dumps it to Poeltl for an easy dunk. 

That’s certainly a common theme for him – passing up decent shot quality for great shot quality – but he can also drive well. In the clip below, Sochan drives to his right and subsequently performs a devastating Euro-Step once the defender shifts. He takes it to the basket strong and finishes through two defenders while drawing the foul. 

These sorts of cuts and drives are a huge part of Sochan’s game because his outside shot isn’t strong. He is at a 19.6 3PT%, but there is plenty of optimism for considerable improvement. Although he needs time to get his shot off, the actual shot mechanics are solid. In addition, Sochan’s off-ball movement around the arc isn’t indicative of the usual horrible three-point shooter. In the clip below, Sochan recognizes that Vassell will use the screen to dribble right, so he shifts to the corner for two reasons: to provide Vassell space and give himself a potential corner 3PA – the shortest and subsequently best possible three-pointer. 

Jeremy Sochan Off-Ball Movement

Once Vassell is adequately defended, Sochan shifts back to give him an easy pass. What I love about this clip is Sochan constantly bouncing on his feet. It tells me he is reading the future action and he’s ready to make a cut in an instant. His hands are also constantly at his chest ready to receive a pass. This clip provides more evidence for Sochan’s greatest tool: his basketball instincts. 

Overall, Sochan has acclimated well to the NBA and projects to be a good starter for the next decade. If his outside shot improves to 34-36% (which I believe will occur eventually), then he will be one of the best all-around non-stars. 

Malaki Branham | 6’5″ | G

The Spurs drafted the 19-year-old with the 20th overall pick, which was around the range where he was projected. I was much higher on Branham though, as he landed at 9th overall on my final Big Board. He excelled versus elite college competition at Ohio State and seemed to elevate his game against defenses ranked highly in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency stat despite his freshman status. He’s 6’5” with a 6’10” wingspan, and Branham displayed elite off the dribble scoring potential paired with a dangerous catch and shoot game at Ohio State. Over his final 22 college games, he shot a superb 43.2 3PT% on 3.4 3PA

If that’s the case, why did Branham fall to the Spurs at 20th? He struggled on drives, his first-step didn’t shake tough defenders, he lacked playmaking chops, and the defensive questions were legit. Overall, franchises knew he had potential, but he was viewed as somewhat of a project and not versatile offensively. However, Branham appears to be ahead of schedule and would not fall to 20th in a current re-draft. 

Over the last five games in 21.2 MPG, Branham averaged 12.8 PPG, 1.6 APG, and 1.0 SPG on a hyper-efficient 71 FG% and 56 3PT%. He’s playing at his own pace and displaying a silky mid-range pull up worthy of Durant or DeRozan. In the clip below, Branham utilizes a staggered screen to lose Daniels and hit a pull-up jumper over Hernangomez. 

Did you catch Branham’s subtle move to bait Hernangomez and create space? 

Malaki Branham Shot Creation

The left frame shows Daniels flying around the screen and Hernangomez in a balanced defensive stance ready to obstruct Branham until Daniels recovers. Branham gives him no such time though, as he performs a wicked chess move. In the middle frame, Branham throws his shoulder and hips to his left (the blue arrow) and plants the idea that he’s crossing over that way; however, he dribbles the ball down in a straight line (the red line). Hernangomez takes the bait and reaches forward (the green line) to deflect the crossover and likely force a turnover. Branham then immediately side-steps to his right into open space. The right frame portrays the effectiveness of the move, as Hernangomez is stumbling off balance trying to recover and in no position to contest. Daniels nearly recovers, but not before Branham sinks the smooth pull-up jumper. 

There are plenty of clips displaying Branham’s lethal off the dribble scoring, but his off-ball relocation is also impressive. In the clip below, Branham reads the defense well and uses a screen to create an open catch and shoot three for himself. 

Breaking it down frame by frame reveals his off-ball aptitude. 

Branham Off-Ball Movement

He’s initially moving from the corner and using a screen to catch the ball above the break. Malik Beasley is chasing and navigates the Tre Jones screen flawlessly, so Mike Conley drops back slightly to deter a timely Jones roll to the basket. Branham instantly notes this, plants his foot hard and cuts back the other direction to wide open space. Beasley is caught in the new Jones screen, and Conley has no chance to contest considering he is 6’1” and in the paint when Branham makes his cut. 

Overall, Branham’s scoring prowess is tantalizing, especially since his finishing at the rim has surpassed expectations. There will be growing pains – Branham’s playmaking and defense require serious work – but that’s expected for a 19-year-old rookie. He’s looking like a complete steal and future offensive cornerstone for the San Antonio Spurs, who suddenly appear extremely dangerous long-term. The lure of the 2023 Draft justifiably holds most of the Spurs attention, but Sochan, Branham, and Wesley’s development is flying under the radar as a result. 

Braxton has been covering the NBA for Lineups since the 2022 season. He's worked with multiple collegiate coaching staffs regarding analytics and scouting, which has allowed him to understand the game on a deeper level. Braxton is also a contributor at Thunderous Intentions.

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